A Welcome Apology

March 29, 2013

With his visit to Israel about to end, President Barack Obama managed to check one additional item off his international agenda. He persuaded Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu that it was time to call Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan and apologize for nine Turkish deaths caused by a much-maligned Israeli Navy raid on the Turkish flagged ship Mavi Marmara in 2010.

Those deaths, which came as Israel attempted to scuttle a flotilla trying to break an Israeli blockade of Gaza, lead Ankara to sever its once-warm relations with Israel. Erdogan said restoring relations was conditional on an apology from the Israelis.

Netanyahu had long balked at apologizing.  And Erdogan didn’t make it easy to do so with a stream of hostile statements — most recently, he called Zionism a “crime against humanity.”  But in Obama’s presence, Netanyahu called the Turkish leader. According to a statement from the prime minister’s office, Netanyahu told Erdogan that an Israeli investigation into the raid had concluded that there had been several “operational errors” by Israeli forces. Netanyahu also “expressed his apologies to the Turkish people for any error that could have led to loss of life and agreed to complete an agreement to provide compensation to the families of the victims.”

Erdogan accepted the apology on behalf of Turkey, and a more than two-year-long break between the two countries was healed. The two leaders agreed to normalize relations and return their ambassadors to each other’s countries, and Erdogan agreed to cancel all legal proceedings against IDF personnel arising from the incident.

Netanyahu later said that he made the call out of concern about the spread of chemical weapons from Syria to Hezbollah and the need to have Turkey’s cooperation in dealing with that threat. That may have been a partial
attempt to save face.  But the concern is real. And the importance of this diplomatic breakthrough cannot be overstated. Turkey and Israel are America’s two most powerful Middle East regional allies. Having them cooperate in
response to the Syrian civil war being fought on both of their borders is a key American objective.

In addition, warming relations with Ankara will ease Israel’s diplomatic isolation in the Middle East as it faces challenges posed by Iran’s nuclear program. And Turkey’s Islamist government can be helpful to Israel as it deals with Islamist-ruled neighbors in Egypt and Gaza.

Although this rapprochement is in the mutual interests of Israel and Turkey, credit for the reconciliation belongs to Obama.  His orchestrated phone call was a grand gesture at the close of his visit to Israel and reminds all parties how carefully the United States is monitoring developments on the ground and is continuing to work to stabilize the region.

In all respects, it was a good call.